Local Arts

Charlotte City Council eyes funding cut for Arts & Science Council

Arts & Science Council President Robert Bush says he worries that “arts funding in the community is a political football, always up for cutting.”
Arts & Science Council President Robert Bush says he worries that “arts funding in the community is a political football, always up for cutting.” Observer File Photo

As the Charlotte City Council planned a straw vote at 3 p.m. Tuesday on whether to cut Arts & Science Council funding for 2016, ASC supporters scrambled Monday to convey their concerns.

“Oh, am I getting emails,” council member Claire Fallon said Monday afternoon.

The question: Will the council take city manager Ron Carlee’s recommendation to keep ASC funding flat, at about $2.9 million? That’s how much the city has given the organization every year since 2002 (a 2 percent dip in 2010-12 made it $2.88 million), according to ASC financial reports.

Or will it take one of the suggestions by council members to cut spending on the city’s financial partners – including the ASC – by 5 percent to 10 percent?

Ten percent would mean about $300,000: “A huge cut,” said ASC President Robert Bush, and likely to affect already fragile groups still recovering from the recession. “It will be more and more difficult to dig out.

“Our biggest concern,” he said, is that, unlike other community assets that have dedicated revenue streams, “arts funding in the community is a political football, always up for cutting.”

The ASC is revamping how it operates, using recommendations from a citizens task force. Last June, co-chair Pat Riley summarized the task force’s take: “The path we’re on will not sustain the cultural sector we need to remain an outstanding place to work and live.”

Key to that shift, the task force said: Getting more money from local and state government to stabilize funding so the ASC can spend more of its time connecting donors directly to groups they’d like to support.

Now, though the ASC had originally asked for more from the city, Bush is just hoping to not get less.

“City Council members are stuck in a very difficult position, and we understand that,” he said. Keeping support at the current level, rather than cutting, would show the council understood the ASC’s challenge, he said.

The ASC call for support went out, via social media, after the 10 percent cut was suggested.

The council faces a budget shortfall of more than $20 million, and it is eying several ways to close it. A final vote on the budget is scheduled for June 8.

Fallon said, “It’s such a quandary. Do we cut police and firemen? It’s a matter of priorities.” She said she’d probably support a 5 percent cut.

Council member Vi Lyles does not support a cut. “Our whole cultural arts program is based on a public/private partnership. I really believe in that.”

But city departments have been asked to cut their budgets by 2 to 4 percent, Lyles noted.

Other council members couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

The ASC has requested roughly $2 million from Mecklenburg County and has a goal of $6.1 million in its own private-sector fundraising campaign. It grants between $10 million and $11 million each year to organizations, said Bush.

How might a cut affect ASC-supported groups?

Theater producer Donna Scott said ASC grant money helped her small organization produce pieces at the Charlotte Trolley Museum and in the Charlotte Art League earlier this year, and she hopes to do a play by humorists David and Amy Sedaris there in August.

“A cut at this point would be very unfortunate for us,” she said. With ASC grants, “it’s not like it’s just giving you money. You have to have a matching fund, a plan, in-kind contributions. That’s how these projects come together.

“We are very good stewards of the money we are given.”

The Art League saw memberships double, she says, during the run of the show there, and someone booked a wedding at the venue. “You look for a partner that you can move the needle for each other. … This was fantastic.”

Scott also worries about cuts to ASC services, such as workshops on engaging audiences, organizing projects and more. “The ASC can bring in experts and give us a chance to learn from them … at a discount.”

Ames Alexander contributed to this story.